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Local Authority Spending (Online Publication)

Volume 521: debated on Monday 17 January 2011

14. How many local authorities have published online details of their spending over £500 to date. (33558)

Our latest assessment is that at least 193 local authorities have published their spending data online to date. Another 10 are about to publish those data on their websites, but that figure is changing daily—pleasingly, upwards.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on that initiative. As Parliament knows to its cost, transparency is the best way to restore confidence in Government, and for that matter in local government, but any policy must be judged by its outcomes. Is there any sign that that initiative has changed behaviour in any way in local government?

As my hon. Friend will know, my Department has published those figures, and that has certainly changed our attitude. There is no possibility that, as under our predecessors, we will order lots of expensive Parisian sofas, a peace pod or special, high-quality chocolates for the Secretary of State—Mrs Pickles is probably pleased about that. We recognise that we must account for every single penny.

When councils publish details of any spending over £500, will they also publish the date on which the decision to initiate that spending was taken, so that the public can see clearly when it was taken so that accountability is not misplaced when administrations change?

We will fairly soon be publishing guidance on what is expected. We were clear that we were keen to see the raw data out there. My hon. Friend should easily be able to obtain such information through freedom of information or by writing directly to the authorities. It is important that local authorities are accountable, as we are, for the money that they spend. I look forward to seeing more local authorities publishing their spending online.

I congratulate King’s Lynn and West Norfolk council and Breckland council on being in the vanguard of councils publishing their expenditure online. Will the Secretary of State confirm how important this initiative is for transparency and for taxpayers to know how their money is spent?

I agree. The councils that my hon. Friend mentions should receive our congratulations and should be a spur to Norfolk county council to follow their lead.

May I draw the attention of the Secretary of State to an editorial in that august newspaper, the Burton Mail, which said:

“Eric Pickles deserves credit for requiring councils to publish every item of spending above £500. Mr Pickles’ requirement is about strengthening democracy.”?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a similar approach should be taken to councillors paying expenses? Will he join me in condemning those Opposition Members who are calling for more pay for councillors at this difficult time?

I am glad to know that I am going down well in Burton. Information about councillors’ expenses has for some time been available from councils, but I hope the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) will take the opportunity some time to say that Lord Beecham’s request for extra remuneration for councillors at a time of crisis is singularly inappropriate.

In that case, should not all Departments, not just councils and the Department for Communities and Local Government, also have to publish every £500 item of spend?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, a number of other Departments have taken that initiative. I look forward to seeing the whole Government follow where councils lead—[Interruption.] I am relaxed about that. It is up to individual Departments, but there are already a number that publish expenditure above £500.

Does not the Secretary of State realise that that is an absurd bureaucratic regulation? Durham county council has calculated that it will take two full-time officers to fulfil that requirement, at the same time as the Secretary of State is cutting £100 million from the budget. [Interruption.] What is the purpose of such pointless posturing?

I confess that I had difficulty hearing the hon. Lady for all the gasps of disbelief. Only if Durham is using an abacus for calculation or providing the information on vellum is that likely to happen. In most councils and in my Department it happens automatically. With a simple spreadsheet, it is very easy to do.

I had the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) down for question 2 but, if there has been a change of plan or if I have been misinformed, that is fine.